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Originally published July 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 6, 2007 at 11:10 AM

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Turtleback Mountain offers incredible views, challenging hikes

Mount Constitution, move aside. With the recent opening of Turtleback Mountain to hikers, it's like a whole new world has opened up on Orcas...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Where to stay


West Sound lodging: Kingfish Inn — Each of this hospitable bed-and-breakfast's four rooms offers a soothing view of West Sound and the marina. The breakfasts shine, especially the waffles and homemade sausage. Inn is connected to the West Sound Cafe, which opens for dinner. 4362 Crow Valley Road; 360-376-4440 or www.kingfishinn.com

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Mount Constitution, move aside. With the recent opening of Turtleback Mountain to hikers, it's like a whole new world has opened up on Orcas Island.

"You can walk this mountain for three hours and have two hours worth of views," said Tim Seifert, executive director of the San Juan Preservation Trust. "Here, you feel part of the landscape, where on Constitution, you feel like you are hovering over it."

That's no slight to Constitution, which always has been, and arguably still is, the king of all mountains on Orcas — indeed, in all of the San Juan Islands — rising 2,409 feet to a stunning 360-degree overlook and tourist-friendly watch tower.

Instead, Seifert's praise for Turtleback, where the best views can be had from less than 1,000 feet up, is the gushing of discovery.

For the past couple years, Seifert was breathing Turtleback, his organization taking on its most ambitious conservation effort ever to try to save the mountain from possible development. Fresh off the success of the stressful campaign that involved raising $18.5 million from more than 2,000 donors, Seifert now can take a breath and enjoy the mountain simply for what it is — an unexplored gem, unrivaled in the San Juans for its diversity of vistas, terrain and habitat.

Payoffs on Turtleback are immediate and absolute. About a half-mile up the south trail, the Canadian Gulf Islands, Massacre Bay and the western lobe of Orcas sneak up behind a hiker's back. At Ship Peak, a 931-foot overlook reached through a short but steep walk, the vista is completely different — a pastoral scene of fertile Crow Valley against the backdrop of Mount Constitution, with peek-a-boo views of East Sound and the West Sound marina.

First-time visitors have described Ship Peak as the perfect yoga space, Seifert said.

"I sat on a rock here for what must have been 45 minutes, just watching a farmer haying," he said. "It was amazing how quickly the time passed. It's mesmerizing from up here."

Clapp's getaway

For most of the past 50 years, Turtleback was the privileged hideaway of Weyerhaeuser timber baron Norton Clapp. Upon his death in 1995, the 1,578 acres of undeveloped land was turned over to the Medina Foundation, the charity he founded.

During those times, Turtleback technically was off-limits to the public. But that didn't stop sneaky souls from slinking up the mountain either on foot or bicycle to enjoy the serene wilderness, superb views and, for adventurous lovers, the feral instincts that can get stirred up by being immersed in nature.

There always seemed to be something forbidden about Turtleback, and also something mysterious.

Turtleback rises 1,519 feet on the lesser-traveled west side of the island. Locals would stare at the green hump — the shape explains its name — and wonder: What's up there anyway?

They heard stories about an anchor near the top. How'd it get there?

They heard about rock formations of concentric circles surrounding a jagged stone. Primitive compasses left by Spanish explorers in the late 18th century? Or an outlandish project of hippies during the Harmonic Convergence in 1987?

The time has come to get to know Turtleback.

Opening access

With last November's purchase of Turtleback Mountain as a preserve, the former logging roads are now gravel hiking trails. A more rustic trail has been cut to connect the two logging roads, allowing hikers to start at one slope and end at the other — a minimum five-mile trek.

More trails eventually will be built off the existing spine. But first, the San Juan County Land Bank, which manages Turtleback, has to explore nearly every inch of the mountain to make sure that people and nature can coexist.

"New trails will be guided by our environmental and archaeological studies," said Eliza Habegger, a steward for the Land Bank, which contributed $10 million toward the purchase of the mountain. "We have discovered grassy hilltops with wildflowers that have good views, but the habitat is fragile. We will want to keep some of those special areas undisturbed."

For now, only hikers are allowed on the trails — no bicycles, horses or unauthorized motor vehicles — and the mountain is open only for day use.

"The reason we are being so cautious about opening the area up to the public is that this habitat, when in good shape, can support species not so common in the Puget Sound area," Habegger said.

That delicate habitat starts to make its appearance a short distance from the southern trailhead with the emergence of Garry oak savannah. These trees have a hard time surviving in wet climates where they are choked out by taller Douglas firs that block light and keep the ground moist.

But Garry oak groves can flourish on Turtleback with a little help from human friends thinning out surrounding fir. The west side of Orcas is considered the sunnier side of the island, and the south slope of Turtleback is the drier slope of the mountain.

"I think of Constitution and Turtleback as bookends on Orcas," said Dean Dougherty, stewardship director of the Preservation Trust. "Moran State Park [which includes Mount Constitution] is designed for people. Turtleback is more of a wilderness area. It doesn't have amenities. You are more on your own here."

What lies ahead?

Turtleback's greatest mysteries are still to be uncovered but Dougherty marvels at what already has been discovered. A sharp-tailed snake, not known to inhabit the San Juans, was found coiled up under a rock. Four species of orchid — calypso, rein, rattlesnake and coralroot — grow within 100 feet of each other along a trail. Wildflowers grow like mad up here, peaking in mid-May.

The south trail, with its assortment of views, will be most popular among hikers. The new rustic trail connecting the north and south logging roads is a zigzag lined with nurse logs. The north trail is a more typical Western Washington forest hike, but features wetlands. More marshes than ponds, the wetlands host several amphibious creatures, including the red-legged frog, Pacific chorus tree frog and rough-skinned newt.

In addition to cutting new trails, the Land Bank has created a new overlook, with another soon on the way.

Waldron Overlook, along the north trail, offers views of Waldron, Stuart and Saturna Islands. Located perilously on a boulder above a cliff that drops straight down, it is no place for anyone with vertigo or unsupervised children.

"Caution — Dangerous," warns a sign that a hiker has attached to the overlook marker. "CLIFFS at overlook. Watch the children." Just right of the boulder is an outcropping that is less scary and offers similar views.

Also along the north trail but not yet marked — unless you count the markings of invasive Scotch broom that a contractor is clearing — is another new viewpoint overlooking the upper end of Crow Valley.

No direct access

Right now, there is no trail leading to Turtleback's summit.

"It's not as great up there as you might think," Habegger said. "It's like being in the middle of a forest with no sweeping views. Of course, we haven't yet scoured every inch of the mountain to find every special place."

They have, however, found the anchor, a rock formation in the shape of an anchor, covered in moss, with a chain at the end. It's far off-trail, its exact location being kept secret so people don't disturb it.

"The less said about the anchor, the better, so people don't go searching for it," Habegger said.

The mystery of the anchor finally may be resolved as part of the Land Bank's archaeological assessment of Turtleback. That study also could solve the mystery of the compass rock formations. Spanish mapmaking or hippie hoax?

Smart money is on the latter.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

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